Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Federal infrastructure, climate and industrial development laws have unlocked billions in new subsidies. Now comes the hard work of ensuring that the Appalachian region successfully taps into these resources.
Editor’s Note: This is the fifth and final article in a series from ReImagine Appalachia, a coalition working to transform and strengthen the economy across parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. At Route Fifty, we’ve reported previously on this project in our news coverage. Here, we’re giving the advocates behind the effort an opportunity to describe their approach, for themselves, in greater detail.
You can find the other articles in this series here.
We formed the coalition to ReImagine Appalachia so that key stakeholders in the region such as local government officials, organized labor leaders, racial justice groups, faith representatives and environmental advocates, could play a leading role in turning national climate conversations into an opportunity to bring much-needed federal resources into the region. Together, we found common ground, created a collective vision for a 21st century sustainable, equitable Appalachia and developed what is essentially a climate action blueprint for how to get there.
Roughly 90% of the region’s carbon emissions come from three sectors: the electric power, transportation and industry. Our aggressive strategies to modernize the region’s electrical grid, build out a more sustainable transportation system and grow clean and efficient manufacturing would help bring the region much closer to achieving climate neutrality. We also realized we don’t have to eliminate every single carbon emission; we can absorb significant levels of greenhouse gasses, naturally, by reforesting the region, restoring wetlands and reclaiming abandoned mines.
We estimate that enacting our blueprint would put more than half a million people to work in good-paying jobs while laying the foundation for a more sustainable, equitable economy over the long haul.
With our blueprint in hand, the coalition to ReImagine Appalachia worked to inform and help secure passage of the federal climate infrastructure package–including the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Inflation Reduction Act and CHIPS and Science Act. Most of our priorities were included in some way. Now, with the passage of these ambitious federal climate infrastructure packages, we turn to the work of making our collective vision a reality. That means targeting federal resources towards key priorities for the region and maximizing the benefits to our communities from those investments.
Our current priorities involve promoting efforts to:
- Make it in Appalachia. Growing clean and efficient manufacturing in the region is key to creating jobs equivalent to those found in the coal industry. This work starts with identifying the sustainable products that the future Appalachia can realistically become a hub for. Through our “make it in Appalachia” series of listening and learning sessions, we are learning how several of the region’s liabilities can be turned into opportunities, including mining rare earth minerals from coal ash ponds for battery technology, turning fly ash from coal ash ponds into eco-bricks for green-building materials, and creating paint primer from acid mine drainage.
- Redevelop shuttered coal plants into climate-friendly industrial parks. Some of the biggest assets in coal communities are the coal plants. These sites connect to significant transportation networks, including extensive rail and water systems. They also contain heavily reinforced electrical grid infrastructure and energy-generating assets that can be repurposed for cleaner energy technologies. Communities where these sites are located also have a highly-skilled workforce with foundational skills in energy production transferable to the new energy economy. To achieve a site’s “highest and best use,” one that creates equivalent jobs and contributes equivalently to a community’s tax base, we are investigating the redevelopment of coal sites into eco-industrial parks where manufacturing and services businesses enhance their collective performance through collaborative management of energy, waste, water and materials.
- Target returning citizens for work restoring nature and repairing damaged lands. Appalachia was hit hard by the opioid crisis and the so-called war on drugs. Incredible barriers exist for workers caught up in the criminal justice system when attempting to rejoin the workforce, creating a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. By employing best practices, citizens returning from incarceration can be targeted for second-chance opportunities doing the restorative work of reforesting the region, restoring wetlands, reclaiming abandoned mines, growing urban green space and tree canopies, alleviating floods and reviving sustainable agriculture.
- ReImagine local communities and catalyze consortiums. While the Ohio River Valley of Appalachia is home to Pittsburgh (sometimes referred to as the “Paris” of Appalachia), most of the region is made up of less-populated communities–many of whom have part-time mayors and volunteer city councils with other “real” jobs. These communities do not have the capacity to compete for large federal grants nor are they necessarily even aware of all their options. They will need assistance reimagining their communities and exploring their options.
Networks of communities, like the Congress of Neighboring Communities (CONNECT) in the Pittsburgh metro area, represent a model that can be replicated, expanded and/or scaled up to help breakdown capacity barriers. With support and technical assistance from the University of Pittsburgh, each member city of CONNECT has been able to undertake a greenhouse gas analysis and develop a climate action plan. They also meet regularly with each other to share experiences and best practices with peers. A natural next step for such a network of communities would be to partner together on joint federal funding applications and develop joint purchasing agreements for climate-related needs. The larger the consortium, the more leverage these communities will have to secure community and labor standards and promote products made in Appalachia.
- Ensure community benefits. Through its Good Jobs Initiative, the Biden Administration is prioritizing climate infrastructure projects designed to achieve the best value for the community. Technical assistance for local project applicants will be needed to create community benefit agreements between project developers and key community stakeholders to pay family-sustaining wages, offer high-quality union workmanship and paid on-the-job training opportunities for historically-marginalized communities as well as provide other communities benefits like public transit access to the job site. Projects with community benefit agreements offer the “best value” to their communities by reducing long-run maintenance costs to communities while alleviating poverty, increasing workforce diversity and promoting the health and well being of all community residents.
These goals are incredibly ambitious. They are also critical to permanently changing the economic and carbon trajectory of coal country. With the right focus and resources, we can turn the region’s energy communities into leaders of the new energy economy.
It’s an all-hands-on-deck kind of moment. We will need all the help we can get–including expertise, allies and resources.
If you’re interested in lending expertise or assistance to the effort, you can learn more by joining ReImagine Appalachia’s 2023 virtual strategy summit on Jan. 10th and 11th.